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Last Night (Don McKellar, 1998)

January 13, 2012

Originally written for a long abandoned former blog back in July 2008

Many a film has dealt with the concept of the end of the world. On the whole,these generally concern mankind banding together in the face of such destruction, or at least a group of individuals attempting to prevent Armageddon, as seen in such films as Sunshine, Deep Impact, and, of course, Michael Bay’s aptly titled Armageddon. The premise of Last Night, in my mind, is so brilliant because of how it subverts the expectations of an apocalyptic film. There is none of the mawkish sentimentality often present in such works and, though there are some grim events and character decisions, we are not presented with the traditional chaotic apocalypse. Taking place in the last six hours before the end of the world, the group of characters we follow, who are fully aware of what is coming and have been so for quite a while, go about making plans and trying to fulfill certain wishes and exit existence in the way they most desire.

Actor-director Don McKellar made the film after receiving an invitation to participate in a challenge to make a film about the imminent arrival of the new Millennium. Choosing not to make a film that would date itself very quickly, he decided to focus on the end of the world. Being quite a low budget piece, McKellar’s effort definitely has a distinctive feel to it that sets it apart from other apocalyptic works, particularly those of the era in which it was made that referenced the imminent Millennium; see, for example, the blockbuster End of Days, though you’d probably be better off doing the opposite. There is a very cold feel to the film, particularly in the imagery, such as shots of practically abandoned streets, but also due to the actions of characters we encounter. There are some people who, during their final hours, take to ruthless violence and destruction. There is a particularly wrenching sequence in which one character who has decided to use his last few hours in a positive way has an unfortunate encounter with one who has lost all sense of morality. The result of this meeting is a tragic one, but the real emotional impact comes from knowing that this man, who aimed for a peaceful conclusion to his time on Earth, is left to die completely alone and that his ambitions for his last night proved to be futile. Futile and minor ambitions crop up throughout the film, with such examples being a radio DJ who chooses to play his 500 favourite songs, and a man from a gas company who calls all of his customers, thanking them for sticking with them over the years and wishing them good luck in their plans for the night. McKellar’s very well observed portrayal of human nature here helps the film to feel exceptionally real. The central character of Patrick, whom McKellar plays, regards his family’s actions as futile and stupid and instead chooses to meet his maker alone, but this stance of his is shown to be just as petty as everyone else’s.

Despite such themes of futility and pettiness, the film is not a completely bitter one. As flawed as Patrick is, we care about him because of these flaws, and we care for other characters because of theirs. In the end, Patrick manages to connect with another person before “the end”, and throughout the film we see people coming together, with notable examples being one character who, in the last few months, has made it his mission to fulfil as many sexual conquests as possible, as well as Patrick’s family who sit down to a pretend Christmas dinner together. The cast pull off a pretty remarkable job, with Sandra Oh proving to be a highlight. David Cronenberg also impresses in the role of the kindly gas company man, with his soothing voice being emitted throughout the film on the answering machines of his customers.

One final thing I would like to address is McKellar’s depiction of the apocalypse. The characters have somehow been aware of their imminent doom for some time now, yet the cause for the end of the world is never explicitly stated. Small hints are provided, such as the sun still shining throughout the night. I found this quite a refreshing thing. For this film we really don’t need to know why things are happening the way they are because people are the focus here. It is a genuinely moving film – when the end comes it definitely leaves a strong impact – and alongside the strong performances and direction, successful understated humour and little pleasures within help make this something definitely worth seeking out and experiencing for yourself.

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